Lost in the Woods – Immersion in The Witness

Jamie Madigan puzzles through what makes video games immersive in his aptly-titled blog post, “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.”  He concludes that richness and consistency in game worlds are necessary for a truly immersive experience.  As I played The Witness, I was struck by how immersed I became in the game.  I lost my sense of time as I became wrapped up in the vexing puzzles and beautiful landscape.  In examining The Witness through Madigan’s lens, I concluded that its multiple channels of sensory information, cognitively demanding environment, and lack of incongruous visual cues were the strongest elements contributing to its immersion.

The multiple channels of sensory information make the game’s beautiful visual landscape come to life.  As the player character walks, grass or dirt crunches underfoot.  When by a sea or river, the player hears the sounds of waves or rushing water.  The visual landscape is already highly detailed, but the auditory aspect really enhances the immersion of the game.  The total lack of incongruous visual cues also works in favor of the game.  The game world is totally un-mediated by HUDs, scores, text, or anything else capable of breaking the immersive spell.  The game is simply the player, the landscape, and the puzzles, making getting lost in the world of the game almost effortless.

The rich visual landscape of The Witness is un-mediated by any visual indicators of the work’s status as a game, such as HUDs

Where I believe the game becomes its most immersive, however, is in the cognitive demands of its puzzles.  While the puzzles are simple in nature (they’re all essentially mazes with a few extra rules now and then), they require a great deal of focus and brainpower. Solving a single puzzle can take over five minutes and demands the full attention of the player.  In solving these puzzles, I found myself losing track of time and my other responsibilities.  While the visual landscape certainly contributed to the immersion, the puzzles were the key element in getting the player lost in the game.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, The Witness is not a typical console game.  It doesn’t require fast reflexes or hand-eye coordination.  Its environment, although eerily empty, is pretty and peaceful.  Yet despite not meeting typical video game criteria, The Witness’s demanding puzzles and rich sensory environment create a game as compelling and immersive as a first person shooter.

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